A week ago this morning, the Twitter feed of rapper, producer, and poly-impresario Kanye West briefly flashed to life, bestowing two words upon its nearly nine and a half million followers: "June Eighteen." West's feed, once one of the liveliest corners of the Internet, had been relatively dormant of late. Those two words were thus quickly imbued with oracular significance, with most observers speculating that they indicated the day that West's still-untitled sixth solo album would be released to the public. West's newest work—which, for found poetry's sake, we'll refer to here as June Eighteen—is easily the most anticipated release of 2013, so much so that a single tweet becomes an event unto itself, the meaning of "June Eighteen" residing in its own anticipation.
We live in the time of Kanye West. Since his solo debut with The College Dropout in early 2004, no artist has come close to approaching West's twin heights of commercial success and critical adulation. This remarkably prolonged consensus reached its zenith (at least, so far) with the release of West's last solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in November of 2010. It was so widely praised that it caused a sort of discursive crisis for being a grandiose and unabashedly self-styled masterpiece forged for an era in which such things aren't really supposed to exist. (We always find, yeah we always something wrong...)
Part of the anticipation for June Eighteen is in a yearning to discover what might possibly come next, how pop music's resident maximalist will follow up one of the great kitchen-sink albums in history. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's 13 tracks sprawled more than 70 minutes and boasted several Coachellas' worth of guest appearances. "All of the Lights" alone featured 14 backup vocalists, including Elton John, Drake, and Alicia Keys.
West's career arc invites a fanciful teleology, an imagining of relentless, gathering progress. His first three albums, The College Dropout, Late Registration (2005), and Graduation (2008), explicitly form a matriculation cycle; one of the reasons that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy lent itself so easily to critical rapture was that it felt like a culmination, an at-last fulfillment of some impossible promise. Even Fantasy's predecessor, 808s and Heartbreak, an album so raw and indulgent that it felt like an affront to civility, has since come to sound like a necessary stepping stone. The preening self-pity of "Welcome to Heartbreak" now seems like an ancestor to the gorgeous melancholia of "Runaway," the best track on Fantasy and one of the most original pop songs of the past several years.
I don't pretend to know where West might go after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But he might do well to take a page from Graduation, a (relatively) modest album that's probably the most underrated work in his catalogue. Coming on the heels of The College Dropout and Late Registration, albums nearly operatic in their scope and ambition, Graduation was a hinge in West's career, the turning point between the anthemic pop-rap of "All Falls Down" and "Gold Digger" and the brooding capital-A artistry of 808s and Fantasy. The strange, self-loathing vanity so deftly plumbed on Fantasy was in inchoate form on Graduation, revealing itself in sonic glimpses like "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and the achingly sad "Everything I Am."
There are a lot of reasons that West might consider scaling down, starting with the fact that it's almost impossible to imagine him scaling up. One of Fantasy's most compelling qualities was its relentless challenges to our capacity for exhaustion; this sounds like a backhanded compliment until you listen through to the album's stunning closer, "Who Will Survive in America" a track that West cedes to the disinterred voice of Gil Scott-Heron and whose central question goes apocalyptically unanswered, a stark defiance of continuation. But West might also dial things back for a reason that seems paradoxical for an artist whose self-regard is so legendary: To bring attention back to himself.
There are a lot of reasons that West might consider scaling down, starting with the fact that it's almost impossible to imagine him scaling up.
West is the greatest songwriter of his generation, a strange title for an artist whose penchant for collaboration is one of his defining characteristics. But one of West's many contributions to pop music has been his decisive dismantling of overly simple auteurist notions of songcraft, blurring lines between composition and recording, and reminding us that to make songs is to first and foremost make sound. West's best works emerge as wholes greater than the sums of their parts, an extraordinary feat considering that the sums of those parts are often remarkable on their own.
Take, for instance, "Gorgeous," the Kid Cudi and Raekwon collaboration that's the second track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The track is lush, driving, portentous: a funeral dirge remixed as club banger, or vice versa. West's distorted vocal evokes an unhinged, awkwardly long voicemail, a weird mixture of self-hatred and self-aggrandizement punctuated by an occasional Napoleon Dymanite reference. When Raekwon arrives for the song's final verse, the vast bulk of the track drops out, leaving us with insistent washes of piano, then a noodling, bluesy electric guitar, then lightly rattling percussion, droning cellos, something like hand-claps on the two and four. Rae, a rapper with no use for navel-gazing confessionals, spits 16 bars of clothes, blunts, dice games and death, things rappers talked about before The College Dropout made it cool to talk about the rest, too.
The effect is breathtaking, an entire track stopping for an instant to open into some yawning chasm of beauty, like the bridge of "God Only Knows" or the last verse of "A Day in the Life" except not really like either of those things, at all. It is a moment that is unmistakably and purely Kanye West, while not "of" him in the slightest: The verse is Raekwon's, the backdrop all session players and Pro Tools, and yet there remains a powerful organic feel wrought by West's own musical vision.
The track record of follow-ups to pop magnum opuses is checkered. The Beatles followed Sgt. Pepper with The White Album, a work whose expansive eclecticism masked the group's own disintegration. Stevie Wonder waited three long years before chasing Songs in the Key of Life with Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a confounding and impenetrably beautiful album that deliberately (and successfully) courted listener alienation. And of course there are the self-destructors: trying to top Pet Sounds cost Brian Wilson his sanity, at least according to legend; Exile on Main Street all but destroyed the Rolling Stones, and maybe it should have.
West is the only artist today capable of inspiring such comparisons, much as he's the only artist today capable of inspiring ramblingly speculative think-pieces by virtue of a two-word tweet. And therein, perhaps, lies the point: No matter what June Eighteen ends up being, it's already provided its own dark twisted fantasy, the promise of music we've yet to imagine.